In every observable way, Rebecca and Steve’s marriage is a good one. They are at church every Sunday with their five beautiful children. Steve volunteers on church committees, and he is full of just the right kind of humor. Rebecca is friends with many of the young mothers in the church.

One Sunday, Steve approaches the pastor. He says that his marriage has hit a rough patch. “I am working overtime, and Rebecca is growing resentful. I have tried everything, but Rebecca remains cold and is not tending to the house and children.”

Steve goes on to explain that Rebecca is silent during family devotions, and he fears her attitude will harm the children. He suggests that maybe Rebecca has not gotten over her father’s abandonment, but he feels she should not be taking her pain out on him and their children.

He then asks the pastor if one of the ladies of the church could disciple Rebecca. The pastor thinks it reasonable to agree to the support, as Rebecca is managing five young children with a husband who often travels.

So, Sue begins a book study with Rebecca. Sue sees Rebecca tense up when they talk about Steve, but she links it to the bitterness Steve reported. A few weeks later, Rebecca tells Sue, “I am feeling more discouraged, even though I have been trying harder than ever. Some nights I stay up until two in the morning to do all my chores. But Steve still seems frustrated. He told me that if I do not get organized, the children’s education will suffer.” Sue feels her burden and offers to come help.

When Sue arrives, she is shocked. Rebecca’s home is immaculate. Rebecca anxiously presents her calendar, asking how she can stay more organized. She says she struggles to remember things, so she writes everything down.

Suddenly, Rebecca gets a text from Steve, and her eyes flood with tears. She blurts out, “Steve says I am stressing him out. Unless I get my act together, he is going to go to the cabin for a few days to get away from my chaos.”

Sue is confused. Nothing she has seen validates Steve’s concern. Perhaps Rebecca is being oversensitive? Maybe she is upset to be left with the children while Steve travels? The pastor had told Sue to help Rebecca better support Steve. So, she asks to see Steve’s text.

What Sue reads is far worse than what Rebecca had conveyed. The text is a five-paragraph rant, filled with cruel names and accusations. Worse, Steve inappropriately used Bible verses in the text to question Rebecca’s faithfulness to God and to him.

Sue is shocked. She cannot make sense of what she is reading. “Has Steve been this upset before?” she asks. Rebecca answers, “Nearly every day. When he travels, he texts, but if he is home, he tells me about my failures. I know I fail him, but I really try. His work is stressful, and I can’t make him happy. What should I do?”

No one at church could have imagined that the man they all served alongside was capable of being so cruel. When Sue reports back to the pastor, she is glad she took screenshots of the texts, because the pastor also struggles to believe it. Perhaps Steve was having a bad day, or had too much to drink? The pastor would prefer any other explanation than seeing these texts as an expression of Steve’s heart toward his wife.

Why Is Abuse So Hard to See?

No one in Rebecca’s church suspected that Steve abused her. Sadly, similar scenarios are likely happening in Reformed churches.[1] To help us grow in recognizing victims of abuse, I have outlined some of the reasons why abuse is hard to see.[2]

We don’t actually see the abuse happen. It typically occurs out of sight, in the privacy of homes. Since we aren’t eyewitnesses, we must rely on another’s testimony. We often don’t know how to discern the truth in this context.

We think we know people. We all like to believe that our perceptions are correct. But abusers are deceptive. They create a public image designed to gain trust. However, the Scriptures warn us to be alert within our churches for empty talkers, deceivers, and wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15; 2 Cor. 11:13; Titus 1:10).

We assume that another person’s level of depravity is like our own. When we hear about a self-absorbed spouse, we map it onto how we sin against our loved ones. Our imaginations fail us, and we minimize the horror of another’s sin.

We are confused by the oppressor’s blame-shifting. When confronted, abusers will twist the details around so you believe that they are the victims. It might be helpful to consider prominent cases of abuse by fallen church leaders and recall how they worked to conceal the evil they were perpetrating. People who abuse others are masters at redirection.

Besides becoming aware of these barriers, we also need to have a biblical understanding of oppression. To help us do so, I will give four underlying heart dynamics of oppressors, and then I will provide five suggestions for how to grow in discerning abuse.

The Dynamics of Oppression

1. Abuse Begins with Idolatry

Domestic abuse is disorienting, and not just for victims, like Rebecca, who believes she is failing Steve, but also for those who seek to help. As Steve’s pastor experienced, it is difficult to conceptualize what drives a person to oppress their spouse. To understand oppressive hearts, it is best if we start with our own.

The way we love others represents what we think about God. If I do not trust that God will provide for my family, I might struggle to be generous towards others. Jesus links these ideas together when he sums up the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–39). To love others well, we must first love God. Oppressors, however, see themselves, not God, as the center of all things.

2. Our Relationships Expose Our Idols

Our relationships are great indicators of our idolatry. When we fail to love others, our hearts’ desires are exposed. For example, at the end of a long day, I have a choice whether to serve my family or my idols. If I idolize my own comfort, I will turn on the TV rather than engage in conversation. If I desire power, I will shame my children until they obey me. If I prioritize my own achievements, I will rush back to the office rather than do the dishes. What we worship affects those we are called to love.

3. An Abuser’s Idolatry Is Fueled by Pernicious Entitlement

While idolatry harms all relationships, oppressors worship their idols to such an extent that they see others as existing only to fulfill their desires. They have a pernicious sense of entitlement. It sounds a bit like, “Serve me or suffer the consequences!”

Steve not only idolized having a perfectly kept and peaceful home, he felt entitled to it. Clear signs of pernicious entitlement are the punishments that oppressors dole out when their idols are threatened. Steve was belligerent if he found dog hair on his chair, and silent for two days if Rebecca dared talk to him while the Cubs were playing. He wanted his world to work his way, no matter the cost to Rebecca.

Of course, we all struggle with entitlement. However, oppressors’ sense of entitlement is of a different magnitude. Oppressors desire to usurp God and live as if they should be worshiped and obeyed. Like the bad kings in the Old Testament, they are willing to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord for their own gain (see, for example, 2 Kings 21:1–18 and 2 Chron. 32:33–33:9). Oppressors are willing to disobey God and wound others to fulfill their desires.

4. An Abuser’s Idolatry Leads to Self-Justification

Oppressive hearts also have a unique faith problem. Because they usurp God’s rightful place, they also fail to see their need for a savior. Oppressors excuse their sin while focusing on their spouses’ sin, and thereby feel justified in using coercive control.

Listen to what Steve says when his pastor calls him in to address his text to Rebecca: “I had no choice! Unless I stay on top of Rebecca, our house descends into chaos! Sure, I could use less vulgar language, but she needs to do better. I work hard, and she shows me no grace and zero appreciation. The one time I lose it, she makes a federal case about it!”

Steve believes that his punishing behaviors are justified. He does not have sorrow for his sin; instead, he blames Rebecca for his actions. A prideful and unrepentant heart is in a perilous spiritual position (Rom. 2:5).

Discerning Abuse

So what does all of this mean for us, the Christian brothers and sisters of women like Rebecca? I would like to offer five suggestions that flow from these underlying dynamics of abuse. My hope is that they will give you clear ways to grow in discerning the presence of abuse.

1. Listen for Blame-Shifting

Most oppressors are brilliant at blame-shifting. This is where helpers often get lost. But if helpers listen carefully, we can pick up on this pattern: Are they more concerned with their spouses’ sin than their own? Are they grieved by the harm they have done, or do they focus on their own suffering? Steve blames his wife for his failures. When his pastor presses him about his sin, Steve deflects responsibility by talking about how his father had mistreated him. When someone is not broken by his sin but instead excuses it, we should take a closer look.

2. Listen for the Effects of Blame-Shifting

Because of this blame-shifting tactic, victims often believe that the abuse is their fault. Victims think, “If only I were more submissive, or exercised more to restore my pre-baby body, or were a better mother or housekeeper, then my husband would not be so angry.”

Rebecca struggles to see Steve’s treatment of her as unreasonable because she has come to see herself as a worthless burden. When Sue asks her how she can help, Rebecca does not report Steve’s seething lectures and unreasonable expectations. She offers up her own failings.

3. Ask More Questions

Whether the situation is a friend talking about a marital conflict or a victim making a formal complaint, your first step should be to gather more information before offering advice. We can keep victims from telling us more by stepping in with premature counsel. So, before you speak into a situation, spend time seeking to learn more. Gain a fuller sense of the person’s homelife, how often conflict occurs, and how intense it is. Depending upon what you hear, you might then screen for fear, controlling behaviors, and punishing behaviors.

If you want a victim of abuse to feel safe sharing her story, you also need to demonstrate concern. This is harder than it seems, as we tend to lead with our disbelief and make comments like, “Are you sure you remembered that right?”

4. Expect to Hear Confusing Stories

Many victims have been so traumatized by their spouses that they struggle to remember the horrors they faced or fail to present them logically. Victims of abuse tend to tell circular stories with missing details. Because of this, they can be labeled as unreliable or overemotional. Oppressors, on the other hand, tend to be smooth, deceptive talkers (Ps. 55:21; Prov. 26:23). Focus on the content of what is shared, not the presentation. Recognize that you will likely need twenty conversations with a victim before you gain clarity on her situation.

5. Remember That Abuse Is the Opposite of God’s Design

One of God’s great purposes in marriage was to picture the relationship between Christ and his redeemed people forever. As such, marriage should be characterized by humility, love, service, and gentleness. Oppressors live out the opposite of God’s design for marriage. They pursue their own self-interests through a pattern of coercive and punishing behaviors. To see if this is the case in a particular situation, identify with specificity what behaviors occur in the marriage. Remember, God calls us to expose the deeds of darkness (Eph. 5:11), so seek to unearth how oppressors use physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual violations to control their spouses.

Consider Our Calling

Within the walls of Reformed churches are many oppressed spouses, but they largely remain unseen. Perhaps they are like Rebecca and do not recognize that they are being abused. Or maybe they know something is off, but they are afraid to ask for help because they fear disbelief from the church or punishment from their spouse.

God calls us to care for the vulnerable in our midst. To do this, we must first see them. My hope in introducing you to Rebecca is to show how we can be misled by the outward appearance of a marriage and by how a marital problem is first presented to us. To counteract this, I want you to learn more about those you are helping. Try to spend time alone with a potential victim to learn more about her story. It is essential to learn about the specific person in front of you.

We also struggle to see abuse because we cannot imagine the distorted idolatry of an abuser. Hence, I provided an overview of an abuser’s underlying idolatry because I want to alert you to the general patterns of abuse.

If I could encourage readers to do just one thing for the sake of the vulnerable in their pews, it would be to learn more about the dynamics and impacts of abuse. We need to understand the darkness if we want to be wise helpers who bring the hope of the gospel to hurting people.


[1] Some situations are so dangerous and intense that it is imperative to get professional counselors, domestic abuse experts, or law enforcement involved right away. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 if you need immediate help or advice.

[2] Men may also be victims of domestic abuse. However, abuse statistics show that men abuse women far more than the other way around, so the examples I use reflect the prevalence of female victims.

The author counsels and teaches with the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation and is the author of Is It Abuse? (P&R, 2020). New Horizons, January 2021.

New Horizons: January 2021

The Difficulty of Seeing Domestic Abuse

Also in this issue

My Story of Being Set Free from Abuse

A Lawyer’s Perspective on Sexual Abuse in the Church

The Church’s Response to Abuse: An Interview with Robert B. Needham

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